Western States 2011
Preparation for my 5th Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (WS) was better than ever. I was fortunate to be able to train away from home for over 3 weeks – 10 days at Michigan Bluff, a couple of days in Yosemite, some canyon running in Utah and finally some altitude and heat adjustment in Flagstaff and Sedona. I arrived at Squaw calm and confident that I would have a good day. Since turning 50 I have been reminded about age group records that exist, but the one that intrigued me the most was Doug Latimer’s record for 50 year old men that was set in 1988, of 18:43. I needed to shave 32 minutes from last year, and was thinking that the past month and half of training had made that possible.
The excitement in Squaw Valley was typical and it was fun hanging out with my teammates, crew, and Andy Jones-Wilkins and family. The day before the race included introduction of past top 10 runners as well as other contenders for the Cougar. I borrowed the magic Thornley hat for the occasion.
Next morning I was up at 3:00, shouting “race day! race day!” to my sleepy crew members Theresa and Hannah. By 4:45 I had connected with my Sunsweet teammates Lewis Taylor, Craig Thornley, Jeff Riley, Dan Olmstead, and my final pacer Jed Tukman.
At 5:00 am, we burst up the trail, some faster than others. I took my time and when I could see clearly, I spotted Craig’s red short about 50 meters ahead. Having tried in the past to stay with him from the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I could catch him. I decided to give it a shot to see if my altitude training had made a difference – and apparently it had as I was able to catch him and Lewis momentarily and we continued to climb together all the way to Emigrant Gap. I was going back and forth with Kami Semick and Ellie Greenwood as well, and I felt grateful to be able to do this climb without feeling like I was having a panic attack.
After we summited, we began to fly down the trail and quickly into the snow covered terrain that would be our surface for the next 10 miles. I stayed close on Craig’s heels until my first slide onto my hip, burning my skin and jarring my body. I decided to back off the pace and stay safe. Lewis passed me and I kept my eyes on him and Craig as long as I could. They were soon out of sight but I fumbled past Kami as we both slipped around on the icy surface. I caught and passed Aliza LaPierre and Ellie as we all tried to grip onto a 45 degree angle slope of ice. I went down a few more times and was annoyed that I could feel the start of a blister. Ellie was soon back and running ahead of me, and I admired her strength on the sections that we could actually hike. Out in the open snow, the yellow flags that marked the course were not always easy to see, and she veered off course. “Ellie! This way!” and back she came, leading the way again. Then she was veering off the other direction. “Ellie! Back this way!” and finally she seemed to start seeing the markings better and before long she too was out of my sight.
I had 2 other men running close by and we eventually came out of the snow and into the second aid station. I choked down a chewy-from-the-cold gel, a potato, hit the gravel road that was part of the snow course, and started running steadily for the first time all day. I was now in the company of fellow Oregonian Dave Larsen and Brett Rivers from the Bay Area. Up ahead I saw Craig and Lewis, so put in a surge, yelled out “Hey Sunsweet!” and got no response. I finally caught them and we ran together for a bit, but I felt like continuing the surge, bringing Craig along. I was absolutely ecstatic that the altitude was not bothering me! We ran into the next aid station, I reminded Craig to take an S!Cap, tried to choke down a PBJ which only went down with coke, and headed onto the first real stretch of single track all day – the Poppy Trail. We stayed fairly close together until Duncan Canyon aid station, mile 23, where I was in and out and on my way, now running with Brett Rivers onto the second adjustment to the course – but he soon pulled away for good. A fair section of running on the pavement of Mosquito Ridge Road, I was enjoying the speed of the downhill. As soon as the grade changed to up, I heard steps and then Kami was beside me encouraging me as she passed, and floated away in front of me. We hit trail again and a long winding uphill – and suddenly Kami and Nikki Kimball were running toward me! Yikes – did I get off course? Apparently not – they had made a wrong turn and corrected quickly. Kami pulled ahead, but I was soon running with a very upbeat Nikki. This was a nice turn around for her, as she has struggled with an injury for a couple of years and now was running well again. I left her behind for the time being and was now running near a new 100 mile runner, Chris Calzetta. We were seemingly running a similar pace, so we struck up a conversation. I tried to explain each bit of trail as we hit it. We caught and passed a dejected Todd Braje who was feeling miserable. I assured him he would feel better when he got out of the altitude.
Meanwhile, the blister that has started back in the snow was weighing on my mind. I joked to Chris that I was going to practice gratitude for the blister as it was my body’s response to stress and trying to protect my deeper skin. Scotty Mills’ words of wisdom from the night before where haunting me – “don’t ignore the small stuff – it isn’t going to get better in 100 miles”.
I came into Miller’s Defeat aid station, officially the end the of the snow course and I was happy to finally be on the regular course. Chris ran with me to the next aid station, Dusty Corners, and after getting aid and a little hosing down, we left together. The next section – Pucker Point trail – is a section that has gotten to me every year. It is completely runnable, but still fairly high up. This year I was running strong on it, and Chris sat behind me the whole time. We spoke not a word, except for when I pointed out what I thought was actually Pucker Point. Emerging from the trail, I reminded him to drink down his bottles as we were coming to a weigh in at the next aid station, Last Chance. My weight was down a couple pounds, which was good news for me, as I normally struggle with hyponatremia and weight gain. I ate fruit, some chicken broth, a gel, grabbed my fresh bottles, got my head sponged off and headed out. Marty Hoffman, director of research projects involving Western States entrants, was working the aid station and ran out with me, offering much encouragement.
Chris was right behind me again. The stretch of service road before the next single track was, as usual, longer than I remembered. I was really looking forward to the trail and when I finally hit it, I was disappointed that the blister was causing me to put the brakes on and I felt like a jack hammer running down the trail. Try as I might to relax and float down, it was a rough ride. My quads weren’t happy so when I crossed the Swinging Bridge at the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, I did not hesitate to sit all the way into the creek that was up the trail, fully immersing my legs. Then I began the steepest climb of the race up to Devil’s Thumb. I was feeling okay, not super. About half way up, I heard a woman give a hoop and holler of joy. Very soon after, Nikki was back on my heels, and she was feeling great. We ended up in the aid station together, she got herself out of there a few minutes before me. I was content grazing the food options, took an S!Cap and gel, a Popsicle and ambled out. Once I reached the next down hill I let my legs go, and had an okay but not great descent into El Dorado canyon. I passed Chris again, commenting that he would catch me on the climb up to Michigan Bluff.
At the aid station in El Dorado Canyon, I looked up to greet Craig and Aliza as they arrived just behind me. Aliza commented that Craig ran a lot faster when he thought he could catch up to me. She and I left together, hiking and jogging and encouraging each other. I told her about my blister and that was considering changing shoes at Michigan Bluff. She told me what I wanted to hear – take care of it as soon as possible. As expected, Chris caught us on the climb, and Aliza and he both went by me. I finally crawled out of the canyon.
As I cruised into Michigan Bluff I was greeted by Carol Hewitt and her posse of past Western States runners. I rounded the corner to the aid station, and John Ticer was yelling at me to give him my pack. I weighed in, grabbed a few quick items from the table then was engulfed by my crew and Craig’s. Renee and Greyson started icing my legs. I told Hannah to take my shoes and socks off, and Theresa to get me a pair of dry socks and shoes. I told them I needed my lighter pack at the next aid station and to give me just one bottle and one flask for now. Laura Riley put ice in my hat. They were like a machine. Everything I told Theresa was replied to with “That’s good information”. I put on the fresh shoes, and was told to get up and start moving. As they escorted me out, Jed was giving me the splits of all the ladies in front of me. Tracy, Ellie, Kami, Nikki, Aliza were all in front, but there were no huge gaps. i reminded myself that we were barely half way there.
Chris was running with me again out of Michigan Bluff. As soon as we started to climb, he pulled ahead. My feet felt much better now, and when I hit Volcano Canyon, I wasn’t feeling too bad. I reached Volcano Creek in time to watch Chris cautiously make his way in the knee deep swift current. I shed my hat, glasses, pack and proceeded to plop all the way down, leaving only my head above water. I sat up and splashed my head good, then grabbed my goods and told the next guy – “take 30 seconds here, and save yourself minutes in your overall time”. Feeling refreshed, I made my way up to Bath Road. John and Hannah were there, and after swapping some bottles, Hannah and I jogged/walked out. We passed Chris and his pacer, just as Theresa came running down, and the three of us gals picked up momentum and really cruised in quickly to Foresthill. Theresa had my replacement pack ready to go. I swapped it out, then hit the road with Hannah. Timewise, I figured if I made it out of Foresthill by 4:00 pm, I had a shot at 18:43, and it was 4:04 – close enough to keep after it.
I had definitely gained momentum from the awesome crowd and was so happy to be moving well. Hannah stayed right on my heels, keeping me company with what she had seen during the day, random life stories, and always attentive to my drinking, eating and taking S!Caps. We rolled into Cal 1 (Dardenelles) and were taken over by a flying Karl Hoagland. He was having a good day, and I was jazzed for him. He flew out before us and I never saw him again. It was heating up in this section, but I was still moving well. My goal was to break 3 hours from Foresthill to the river, something I had not come close to in previous years. Nearing Cal 2 (Peachstone) I passed a hurting Anita Ortiz, and then Scott Jaime, both talented athletes who had seen better days.
My feet were only happier now as long as I was running flat or uphill. The blisters and hot spots were rather annoying, and I knew that I would never forgo the tape job again (I had concluded that I had roughed my feet up so badly in the previous weeks that they would not blister – but the slope of the snowy run in the high country proved my wrong!). We reached the Elevator Shaft and I let out a few expletives on the steep descent, but at the same time I was very glad to have gotten to that landmark. We reached Cal 2 and got out quickly. I did some math on the split and realized a sub-3:00 was very possible. We ran the very sweet downhill that wasn’t too bad on my feet and encountered a spent/sick Ryan Burch and his pacer, making their way back to Cal 2 to drop. It is such a tough situation to find yourself in, and I felt for him. Hannah and I pressed on, and I was actually looking forward to the steep “6 minute hill” that awaited us. We reached it and I decided to clock it just for kicks. We powered up and I was stoked to get there in under 7 minutes.
We ran steady the rest of the way to the river and the waiting spectators. My split was 2:54! Western States icon Tim Twietmeyer appeared beside me the same time as Jed and Theresa. He gave Jed some indirect flack by telling me he hoped I would drop him in the next 22 miles. In the spirit of us older runners, he was still hoping I could pull out a win. Theresa was all business, handing me a fresh bottle and getting me down to the river. I took the opportunity to do a full body dunk before getting in the boat to get my legs a chance to revive before the last pull.
John Ticer was on the other side of the river, and I couldn’t shut up about my Cal street split. He and Jed were a bit tired of me delaying, and pushed me to get on my way. Jed and I hiked/jogged our way to the Green Gate. From this point on, Jed was a machine – one minute telling me how amazing I was running, and the next calculating how far to the next aid station, when the sun was going to go down using the boy scout rule of holding his fingers in some boy scout secret way, and telling me when it goes down it will cool off and I’ll feel so much better. We got to ALT in the light and had a little more daylight running towards Brown’s Bar before I stumbled once, so decided it was time to turn on the headlamp. Chris and his pacer had finally caught up again, and they settled in behind us. Jed continued his math calculations and telling me how far left to Brown’s Bar. “2 miles to go”, then “1.75 miles to go” and “1.5”. With less than a mile I heard someone gaining on us quickly. We all turned around and shone our lights on Rory Bosio, who was just flying. “Rory! Awesome! Where’s your pacer?” “I dropped her” she said smiling. She cruised by quickly and disappeared fast, putting me back into 7th place. Incredible. Jed was still clicking off the partial miles, equating them to laps around the track, and I said “this has to be the longest track ever.” Finally the music of Brown’s Bar aid station was upon us. I had potato soup for the first time all day, and it gave me a much needed boost.
The next downhill section is pretty acute, especially on blisters. I was projecting little grunts of pain and frustration all the way down, remembering how much easier it was last year. But then every time I run this race problems arise, and at least this is one I can easily fix next year. We reached the quarry road, and Jed pulled in front of me and vocally pulled me along up and down the rolling terrain. I was able to run most of it, albeit slowly. We passed Lon Freeman, and had dropped Chris back at Brown’s Bar. Jed was still doing math, and talking about the next couple of sections before the next aid station. He kept pulling ahead, chatting away, until I couldn’t hear him anymore, then he would turn and see me and wait. Two more climbs up a rocky trail and we could see the lights for Highway 49 aid station. In my excitement I stumbled and took 5 or 6 giant flailing strides before going to the ground. I hopped up quickly and kept going, giggling. We cruised into the aid station as they were announcing my name, and Theresa and Hannah stepped in to crew. This last weigh in I was up a few pounds, but I convinced the volunteer that I was feeling fine, taking S!caps and eating and drinking, so she let me go. I waved to Craig’s crew as they cheered me out.
Jed was still keeping me going with splits and predictions, and I finally said “Jed, you need to stop doing math. We’ll get there when we get there.” I knew it would be close, but it looked like I would at least break 19 hours. We had another long section of downhill that made me want to bite a bullet, but I knew it was only blisters and that they would heal, so just told myself to shut up and run. Lights behind us didn’t catch us before No Hands Bridge, and I ran right through the aid station, surprised by the voice of Ed Willson cheering me on – one of my long time crew members who had to miss out on his duties this year due to recent surgery.
Three miles to go with significant climbing and only 30 minutes for that record. I moved the best I could, taking in more gel, drinking more Gu-Brew, but not having much pep. Chris caught us one last time and reached the last climb just before me. We hiked hard out, and when almost to Robie Point were greeted by Hannah. We got to Robie at 18:35, and Jed thought we still had a chance. I knew we couldn’t run a flat 1.1 mile in 7 minutes, and we still had a big climb to go. Theresa met us, and we four trudged up the climb, hit the runnable stuff running, and finally the white bridge. Eventually my legs unwound, my stride lengthened and I could see the track. I was running hard now, and Theresa said “now there’s the Meghan I know!”
The track felt as smooth as butter. I accelerated and wished that Craig was here to race that last 250 meters as we had done in training. Turning the last corner and crossing the finish line – as sweet as ever. 18:50. Only 7 minutes to shave off next year!
A special thanks to all of the volunteers on the course, my crew Theresa and Hannah, pacer Jed, and all of the Eugene support – Renee, Greyson, Laura and John, and my sponsor Sunsweet! Let’s do it again next year!